Berry Picking With Esther Green

Sep 21, 2018

The four seasons mean different activities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. In winter, spring, summer and fall, subsistence users collect a variety of foods. Right now, hunters and berry pickers are hard at work. 

The tundra has all the colors of the rainbow, and I’d like to include apple green, beige, black, gray, white, brown, tan, and pink. It has hundreds of plants, including one particular plant that I personally nicknamed the “tundra stars." It’s pretty and it stands out, and I can’t help but enjoy the way it grows. 

In July, the salmonberries are ready for harvesting. In August, blueberries. And in September, blackberries and cranberries. If you’re lucky you might meet Esther Green out picking.

Esther Green is short, has short white curly hair, wears glasses, and has a great sense of humor. Her Yup’ik name is Nuqarrluk or Nuqaqaq for short. She was born and raised in Nunapitchuk or Nunapitcuaq. She moved to Bethel between the 1950s and 1960s during an outbreak of tuberculosis. The move was part of the government’s attempt to control the epidemic.

Esther Green: “Nunapicuarmiungunga yuurtellrunga Nunapicuarmi, anglillruunga Nunapicuarmi.” [I’m from Nunapitchuk, I was born in Nunapitchuk and I grew up in Nunapitchuk.]

Petra Harpak: “When did you move to Bethel?”

E: “Epidemic TB when it broke out. The doctors told us to move down here so my mom’s husband won’t work hard like getting wood, packing water. The [government] were trying to control [the epidemic]; the government.”

She’s quite young, in her mind that is. She was supposed to pick berries, but the weather stopped her from gathering for the winter. 

P: “And why aren’t you going picking berries today?” 

E: “It’s raining out there. I got scared a couple years ago. I think I had pneumonia and I didn’t like it.”

P: “Where were you going to pick today if you were going to pick berries?”

E: “By the big white ball back there before you get to BIA side. Old BIA side, there’s a big white ball. That doesn’t mean they pick all the berries, there’s some things that they leave or didn’t see.”

P: “And how old are you?”

E: “Eighty.”

P: “And you're still picking berries?”

E: “Yes.”

P: “Wow, you’re so young.”

E: “Oh really? Oh thank you. My mind never feel old, my mind stay young and I think it goes with every other elder.”

Esther makes akutaq, or Eskimo ice cream. Berries can bring the family together on birthdays, holidays, potlucks, and reunions. Berries are one of our sources of life; they're sweet, tart and yummy. Berries are eaten year-round and can be made into jams or pies.

Esther never holds back elder wisdom; instead she shares it with everyone. Elder wisdom is a treasure of life and one day we’ll carry on the knowledge. She won’t hide any secrets; she ponders and says this:

E: “Mmmm. I’m wide open. If I have any secrets, I won’t hide ‘em because they’re the truth, you know?” 

Esther predicts that the berries for the 2019 season won’t be as plentiful as they were this summer.

P: “Because the berries are so plentiful this year, summer to fall 2018, does that mean I need to conserve my berries for next year?”

E: “It’s up to you. You know, nobody can’t tell you what to do.” 

P: “But just for prediction for 2019.”

E: “If you’re afraid of, or if you feel you need to do that, go ahead and do it. I do that lots of times when the berries had been plenty. That kind of tells me what it’s going to look like next year. Right now, everything is plenty. See, universe is the boss of it’s own. What my thinking next year? I wonder if there will be plenty like this next year ‘cause it’s unpredictable. We native or anybody love to pick berries, and the weather condition is the one we have to use for guide; weather condition. And it’s been cold. Many, many years ago when I was young growing up, our summers used to be nice and hot. How many years now, 10 years now, inside of that, it’s so different, it’s getting cold.”

Berry picking isn’t the only activity that she enjoys. She manaqs, or jigs for fish on the Kuskokwim River. She recalls our beloved elder Peter Jacobs’ knowledge of understanding of how fish can take a different route due to changes in the river conditions. But first she explains why the river conditions weren’t quite right this summer.

E: “Well, it’s really funny this year because it really didn’t go down. And every year there’s big sand bars and that little Brown Slough, the water goes all the way down to little stream, but this year it didn’t. The water just stays high. And we go for white fishing there’s hardly any along with lush fish. What happened? I remember [what] Peter Jacobs used to say ‘Where the fish swim, it’s their trail, but when they change their trail in the river where there used to be plenty, they’re gone, 'cause they change to a different trail in the water.’” 

P: “So you think the fish have diverted to a different trail?”

E: “I have no idea, but that one information I heard from Apa [grandpa] Peter Jacobs. I don’t know if it happened, right now, I don’t know.” 

Close your eyes for a moment and take a break. If you knew you would live to be 80 years old, how would you live your life? If you knew you would live to be 80 and older would you treasure that life? Would you still understand the land and your place in it?

Alaska means "great land." This vast frozen land means a lot to me, and I’m sure it will mean more each year.